Sustainable Retail Industry Waste Management

Author: ACTenviro Corporate
Date: February 3, 2024

Consumer shopping can either be a necessity or a want. It becomes even more accessible due to the fast growing online shopping platforms.

Whatever the case be, the products often come in some sort of packaging. While the packaging material is necessary to protect the item and preserve its quality, it can also add to the country’s already massive waste problem.

Not to mention the returns where products can either be repacked for resale or for disposal, which still generates waste.

Retail waste management has been a perennial problem that haunts the retail industry. Not only does retail waste cost them money but it also causes serious environmental problems.

Let’s find out how retail waste affects the environment and the industry as well as solutions that could help manage it.

Current Status on Retail Store Waste in the US

The US has a serious and growing problem when it comes to retail waste disposal and management. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 292 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW)  is generated in the US in 2018. 146.1 million tons of the waste ends up in landfills. Worse, 25 to 30% of such materials are too contaminated to be discarded in an incinerator or landfill.

According to The Verge, 5 billion pounds of returned goods from retailers are dumped into landfills every year even if the items are still perfectly usable.

Packaging and containers also make up a huge part of MSWs. In 2018, discarded packaging and containers used for protecting and shipping goods generated 82 million tons.

Finally, hauling inventory around the country generates 15 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, which is more than 3 million cars might produce in that same year.

The volume of retail waste is expected to get worse as consumer spending increases along with the rise of e-commerce.

Overview of the Major Problems Retail Stores are Facing in Handling or Managing Wastes

As long as there is inventory in their display shelves and in their stockrooms, retail stores face the challenges of retail waste management and disposal. Let’s discuss this further

Where and how does the issue with the waste start?

Retail waste begins when the ordered items are prepared for shipping from the manufacturer to the retailer. The goods are usually placed in boxes and bound with tape. To protect each item, stuffing such as Styrofoam peanuts, bubble wrap, shredded paper, and other similar materials are also placed inside the box.

Humidity, moisture, molds, insects, and dust can infest unprotected boxes---and their content---in a shipping container. Thus, plastic sheets are wrapped around boxes for further protection during shipping. Upon arrival at the retailers, the boxes are often wrapped again for inventory and stock before displaying on the shelf.

The disposal of these plastics, stuffing, and containers---whether from the retailers or consumers---all contribute to the retail waste problems.

Just to provide you with context, Amazon, the world’s biggest online retailer, shipped 5 billion items around the world in 2017. In 2018, Fast Company stated that 165 billion packages are shipped in the US annually.  

Major Problems in Detail

The most common types of retail waste include waste from packaging such as cardboards, plastics, papers, fillers, and general waste from customers. Discarded packaging and shipping materials are just the beginning of retail waste disposal problems. Let’s find out about these other problems.

1. Increased consumer spending means more items need to be manufactured and shipped to satisfy customer demands and increase retail store sales. With more plastic packaging being used and disposed of, the volume of retail waste increases.

2. Shopper and retailer attitude during sales promos, Black Friday sales, and holiday seasons produce massive trash buildup from discarded packaging.

3. Free returns are often advertised as added value to convince customers to purchase the item. Unfortunately, returning items to the retailer or manufacturer produces a lot of waste; the original packaging just goes back to its origin. To return opened packages, customers and retailers often need to re-package the returned items according to the manufacturer’s standard. This adds to discarded packaging once the packages are returned to the manufacturer.

According to the Verge, UPS usually expects 2 million returned packages each year, especially after the holidays. That number is so high that UPS dubbed January 2 as “National Returns Day.”

4. Free returns encourage customers to return items without any conditions. But without awareness of what happens to the products as well as the volume of packaging waste the return process creates, people will continue to generate trash without concern.

5. Increased promotions of new products and massive consumerism ingrains in people’s minds that “I must have that.” As people buy more products to satisfy their needs and wants, they also unknowingly generate waste.

6. Items can be damaged due to mishandling by the retailer’s staff. Or they may get damaged during shipping. Unfortunately, manufacturers only replace items that are deemed to have manufacturer’s defects. Thus, such damaged items are disposed of, adding to the waste problem.

How to Reduce Waste in Retail

As a business owner, you can implement various solutions for more effective retail waste management.

1. Encourage the use of reusable and recyclable packaging to reduce retail waste. The idea is, upon checkout from the web store,  the shopper can see an option that says “reuse.” If the shopper clicks it, the order will arrive in a reusable package. After taking out the item, the shopper then mails the package back.

2. Adopt a click-and-collect scheme such as one implemented by UK-based department store John Lewis & Partners. This scheme allows customers to purchase items online and then collect their orders at the storefront. This allows customers to try out their purchases right away, reducing the likelihood of returns.

3. John Lewis & Partners also adopted the use of reusable click-and-collect bags to cut down plastic use and facilitate recycling for such orders.

4. Returned but usable items (often returned due to a change of preference or circumstance) can be sold again. Or they can sell the items to other companies who can sell them at a discount.

5. Sharon Cullinane, a professor at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, stated that consumers need to be aware of the environmental consequences should they send back items. As a business owner, you can inform your customers by putting environmental awareness posters in your store. Let customers know what they need to do to reduce the environmental impacts of returning the items.

- Encourage them to return the items the soonest time possible so you’ll have time to resell them.

- Let them bring items to collection centers for returns instead of mailing them back to the manufacturer.

- Encourage them to buy only what they need rather than buying multiple options only to have some of those returned.

6. Contact us at (408) 548-5050 for a customized solution to address your retail waste management concern.

How Will This Impact Your Business?

Effective retail waste management not only enables your business to reduce waste but it also saves you a lot of money. That’s because you don’t have to spend shipping costs returning the items back to the manufacturer. By selling returned items, even at a discount, you can earn a profit or at least have your investment back.

More importantly, by being at the forefront of waste reduction, you give your business a good reputation. Such a reputation increases your customer base and gives that positive perception that your business is not just about money but something more noble and important.

Key Takeaways

Reducing retail waste is a challenging issue to solve. All parties involved---manufacturers, retailers, and consumers---requires a shift in their processes for effective and sustainable retail waste management. As a retail business owner, you can start the ball rolling through in-store policies that reduce returns, encouraging the use of recyclable packaging, use sealable containers rather than plastic wraps, and partnering with us with a solution that best fits your needs.

Have any questions about retail waste or any other hazardous wastes? Please e-mail us at [email protected]. We’re happy to help!


*ACTenviro has National service and consulting capabilities across the US

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